Much of Maui has been decimated following one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history, wildfires are still ravaging Canada, ice in the arctic is melting rapidly, sea levels are rising and we’ve had the hottest day measured on our planet this year. There’s a lot happening as it relates to climate change. “It’s not the summer from hell, it’s the summer that sort of is hell,” says Bill McKibben.

The below is a transcript from the WITHpod where he discussed the growth debates of the 70s vs. contemporary ones, parallels between protecting the planet and our democracy, why this moment is such an inflection point and more. Note: The following is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Bill McKibben: It seems to me that climate change is a kind of test of whether the big brain was a good adaptation or not. It can get us in a lot of trouble and now, we’ll find out if it can get us out of that trouble. And my guess is that the answer lies less in the size of the brain in the end than in the size of the heart it’s attached to.

This is going to be ultimately, there’s plenty of questions of self-interest and self-preservation, but there are also deep, deep questions about human solidarity that we’re going to answer one way or another in the next few years.

Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to “Why is this Happening” with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

So I talked about this on the program before. We have a house north of New York City in a sort of rural area. And I feel very lucky to have it, very privileged. And, you know, it’s in the woods. And one of the things that I’ve undertaken over the last few years is a project to try to take the emissions of the house and drive them down to zero.

So this has been a kind of iterative process. So the first thing we did was, and this is something that is kind of news you can use. I think I’ve talked about it before. And we hired like, weatherization folks to come and measure the efficiency of the house and try to get it so that it’s much more efficient.

It was actually incredibly inefficient. There is a lot of air escaping. We did what’s called blower door test to test for that. And you should know that like many states, particularly under the Inflation Reduction Act and then state incentives, you can do it for free in a lot of places.

So we did that. And then we put in an enormous solar array that captures a huge amount of carbon free energy. It’s an incredible, beautiful thing. I love the little app on my phone that tells me how much energy I’m capturing. It’s a marvel of technology to me. And then after that, we were still heating the home off of fossil fuels because of it was a, you know, natural gas heater.

We replaced that with geothermal. So that now uses the sort of core temperature, you know, hundreds of feet beneath the earth, runs it through a heat pump. It’s very efficient. It’s also on the grid, right? So that’s not using any fossil fuels.

So we’re getting it close to a net zero operation. So we had this dilemma, which is like, you know, real first world problems here and I’m fully aware of that as I tell this story. But I think it actually represents a kind of fundamental larger issue.

Next to the solar array is this beautiful, huge old white oak tree, stretches up into the air. It’s beautiful. I love to look at it. It is precariously close to falling on the solar array should it ever fall. And also, it casts a huge amount of shade on the solar array so that it’s stopping the solar array from achieving its maximum efficiency.

This presented a dilemma. What should we get rid of the tree? Now, this is a fascinating dilemma because at one level, you’re an environmentalist. Trees are taking carbon out of the air. Trees are beautiful. You want to preserve trees. But also, if the tree were to fall, which could happen at any moment because it’s like right there, it would take out the solar array.

And also over time, it was significantly degrading the amount of energy that that solar array could capture. What is the correct environmentalist thing to do? What’s the conscientious thing to do in this situation? At one level, cutting down a tree seems like the least environmentalist thing you can do.

But then in the end, I made the decision to cut it down. Maybe I made the wrong decision. I want to fully cop to maybe making the wrong decision. But the solar array is really important to me and preserving its capacity for a very long time. Like the way that I think about this house is that I want to be in this house for a long time. And I don’t want this house to be at all fossil fuel dependent.

We’re almost there now. But I want it to be independent of any fossil fuels and any carbon energy for a long time. So we cut down the tree. This dilemma represents the global dilemma of development in the climate age, and it’s this. In order to get to net zero, there’s a lot of stuff that’s gonna have to be built, because the stuff that we have doesn’t give us net zero.

The facilities and infrastructure we have is based off of fossil fuel economy. So we’re gonna have to put in like a lot more solar arrays, lots, on lots of different places. And there’s a lot of infrastructure that’s going to have to go with that. Hopefully, more people like home heating. Heating a home without fossil fuels is a non-trivial thing, particularly in cold places, the Midwest, the Northeast.

We’ve got heat pumps going. We’re going to have to put a lot more heat pumps in. Hopefully we’ll deploy more geothermal. There’s fun stuff happening along like central heating where like you have a whole subdivision that’s heated by a large electric powered boiler that then like moves the heat to the different homes, the way that like the grid works.

There’s all sorts of crazy stuff happening. Point being, you gotta build a lot of stuff. Building a lot of stuff though, is often in tension with the environment writ large (ph), right? Like the origins of the environmental movement often are conserving what’s there, conserving what’s natural, stopping the encroachments and the ceaseless depredations of industrial capitalism, the fact that you’re constantly building stuff and you’re building factories and you’re polluting.

And these twin impulses are in tension with each other. And those twin impulses, if you dig one level deeper, come down to a really, really deep and fundamental question, which is, what is the point of growth? Like when we think about growth as an economic phenomenon, is it possible to have growth and preserve the habitability of the planet?

For the first 200 years of the Industrial Revolution, it just has been the case that growth is powered by fossil fuel consumption. One leads to the other. One depends on the other. If you wanna grow, over time, the amount of fossil fuels consumed per unit of growth has diminished. So the two have sort of become increasingly unlinked.

The question is, can we unlink them all together? Or do we have to think about a climate future where we’re not growing as much? And these are deep, profound questions. They’re at the core of, I think, a lot of the ways that we think about the present and the future. They were the subject of a fantastic article that I love by one of my favorite writers and one of my favorite thinkers and activists, Bill McKibben.

Now, Bill McKibben is legendary, so he doesn’t really need my introduction. But he’s got a million different hats, environmentalist, an educator, an author. He wrote for “The New Yorker” for years. He’s written a bunch of books. He just wrote a piece about to save the planet, should we really be moving slower, in The New Yorker, that sort of wrestles with some of these issues?

He’s also founder of Third Act, which is a mission to organize people over the age of 60 for action on climate injustice, the founder of, the first global grassroots climate campaign, and someone who is, you know, at the forefront of the climate movement now going on decades. So it’s my very great pleasure to welcome Bill to the program.

Bill McKibben: Chris, it’s always a pleasure to get to be with you, and this is especially cool to get to do it from your house there.

Chris Hayes: Yes. Well, here’s the question. Let me start. Did I make the right decision when I cut down the tree?

Bill McKibben: Well, you’re right. It’s a very interesting illustration. So in the easiest possible terms, you know, that tree sequesters carbon. So you want to calculate that and make sure you’re not.

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Bill McKibben: But it’s pretty clear now that cutting down a tree to allow more generation of solar energy replaces that carbon fast a year or two. So in that sense, it’s a decent trade-off. There are moments when I am tempted to say, oh, if only you’d listen to me when, you know, because I wrote the first book about climate change back in 1989, a book called “The End of Nature.”

Had we started working in 1989, as every scientist said we should, we wouldn’t be faced with quite this level of insane trade-offs —

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Bill McKibben: — that we now have to make. But we didn’t. We’ve poured more carbon into the atmosphere since 1989 than in all of human history before it. And as a result, we’re now in the summer of 2023, you know, it’s not the summer from hell, it’s the summer that sort of is hell.

We’ve had the hottest day measured on our planet and probably the hottest day ever for the last 125,000 years, the hottest week, the hottest month. The temperature in the North Atlantic is not just off the charts, it’s off the wall. The charts are tacked (ph), too.

As a result, we’re seeing epic and killer heat waves and fires. As we’re talking here today, they’re trying to get them under control in Maui, where 36 people at least are dead. But north of us in Canada, they’re not going to get the biggest fires in Canadian history under control until it snows in the fall.

What I’m trying to say is we’re in an emergency. And when you’re in emergency —

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill McKibben: — then you do things that are different from what you would ordinarily do because you have to get out of that emergency.

If we don’t, if we allow the temperature to keep going up, if we don’t stop using fossil fuel, then we’re in fairly short order, not going to have civilizations like the ones we’re used to because we can’t absorb an endless amount of this kind of violent chaos and flux. We’ve raised the temperature about two degrees Fahrenheit so far.

But we’re on track to raise it five or six degrees Fahrenheit. And that won’t be three times as bad as what we’ve done. It’ll be worse than that because the damage goes up exponentially. We think now that every tenth of a degree Celsius moves another 140 million people out of the kind of prime human habitat zone on this planet.

So, that’s the context in which this discussion is being held. And in that context, then you start making all kinds of choices you wish you didn’t have to make. Do we have to go mine lithium and cobalt? Yeah, we probably do because we can’t build renewable energy without it.

That doesn’t mean it’s a great thing to be doing because at the moment, it’s an environmental and human rights problem in some places of a serious order. But when you mine lithium or cobalt, you know, you go put it in a device like a battery and there it lasts for a quarter century. When you mine coal and oil and gas, what do you do?

You set it on fire. And so you have to get some more the next day.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, incinerate it.

Bill McKibben: We think that 40 percent of all the ship traffic on the planet is just carrying coal and oil and gas back and forth. That gives you some idea of how much kind of dematerialization there can be as we move in this direction. So there’s nothing even close to a free lunch. but there are lunches that are gonna kill us. And that’s the one that we’re eating right now.

Chris Hayes: Let’s sort of go back and let’s talk about, well, there’s two ways I wanna sort of approach this. So one, I wanna talk about the growth debates of the ‘70s because one of the things you do is sort of come back around to them in the article you wrote. And it’s also, I’m very obsessed.

I don’t know why I have a weird intellectual fixation with the growth debates of the ‘70s and something called the Simon-Ehrlich bet and the club of Rome. Maybe you can sort of lay out —

Bill McKibben: Sure.

Chris Hayes: — what the sort of growth, degrowth debates of, particularly they got, you know, really what got intense in the ‘70s, what they were all about.

Bill McKibben: I wrote a book once called “Deep Economy” that was largely about this question. And it’s fascinating. Really, we hadn’t focused on growth at all as a kind of policy objective or anything until the early to mid-part of the 20th century. And it was really only after World War II that it became the driving obsession.

But it happened quickly. And before long, you had, you know, in the Kennedy-Nixon debates and things, I can make the economy grow twice as fast. You know, on and on and on. And so growth was perceived as an unalloyed good until, as you say, the rise of the environmental movement in the late 1960s, the first birthday in 1970. And then in 1972, I think, the publication of this small book —

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Bill McKibben: — “Limits to Growth,” which turned out to be one of the two or three bestselling books of that decade. It was a report prepared by three researchers at MIT, one of whom, Donella Meadows, I came to know well and admire and really, really like.

And they used a computer, which in 1972 was still a kind of innovative thing to be doing. And they —

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Bill McKibben: — programmed in a lot of parameters and punched the button. And what they said was, if we keep doing this, sometime in the second or third decade of the 21st century, we’re gonna run into deep ecological walls that we’re gonna crash against. Lots of people read it and liked it. But there was lots of pushback from the usual suspects against this.

And as the decade wore on, this is the decade that E.F. Schumacher published, “Small is Beautiful.” It’s the decade that Jimmy Carter went on TV wearing a sweater and telling us to turn down the thermostat. I think that really, the central debate of the 1970s, was which side of this are we going to come down on?

Amitai Etzioni, who was then working in the Carter White House, apparently came to him with a poll in 1978 that showed that a third of Americans were now anti-growth, a third were pro-growth, and a third didn’t know. And Etzioni said, the tension here is too great. This is going to be resolved one way or its other.

And it was with the election of 1980 and with Ronald Reagan’s declaration that it was morning in America again. And that’s basically where we’ve been for the last 40 years, back very much on this idea that growth was what we wanted. It’s, you know, what Clinton and Obama, as well as the Bushes and everybody else worked on.

And we’ve now reached the second, I guess third decade of this century. And what do you know, half the sea ice in the summer Arctic is melted. Canada is on fire. You know, people are running into the sea in Maui to escape the flames, hoping that somehow the coast guard will come save them from drowning, were basically where they told us we were going to be.

So, you know, two points for Gryffindor. I mean, they figured it out. Now the question is, what do we do? Because we’re in a strange paradoxical situation. You would think that the most obvious answer would be to try and bring everything to a screeching halt and stop growing and start reducing our size and things. But that seems politically unlikely in a short term, in a democracy or in an autocracy.

Look at Xi Jinping and the trouble that he suddenly finds himself in as youth unemployment hits 20 percent, you know? And in order to get out of the incredible mess climatically that we’re in, we have to build, as you say, like we haven’t built since the beginning of World War II. This time, not tanks and planes —

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill McKibben: –but solar panels and wind turbines. Which happily is possible because the engineers have dropped the price of renewable energy 90 percent in the last decade. That means we live on a planet where the cheapest way to produce power is to point a sheet of glass at the sun.

So you’d say, let’s go hard in that direction. And I think we very much should. But if all we do is replace the fossil fuel that we’re burning now with solar panels, yes, it will reduce the carbon in the atmosphere. But it won’t get us out of this fundamental problem that these guys identified in 1972, which is that growth is, on many, many, many environmental counts, extremely difficult.

It’s not just the climate. I mean, we have 70 percent fewer wild animals on this planet than we did 50 years ago because we’ve taken out all the habitat. Our oceans are an unbelievable mess. And we’re a planet that’s 70 percent ocean.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill McKibben: On and on and on. So I think probably that the best we might be able to do at this late date is build the hell out of solar panels and wind turbines. But as we do it, try to figure out some ways to use that last great burst of expansion to change things, i.e., if we’re building solar power, one of the beautiful things about it is there’s sun and wind everywhere. It’s not like coal and gas and oil, which are owned by MBS —

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill McKibben: — and Putin and the Koch brothers, you know. That’s great. But to really take advantage of that, it should be owned close to the community. That’s one of the reasons that Denmark, say, has gotten way ahead of everybody because they figured out how to do a lot of that. And then we should be looking at lots of other things.

Yes, an electric vehicle is better than an internal combustion engine car. But the electric vehicles and vehicles in general that we drive are largely ludicrous. They are, you know, endlessly larger than we need them to be. You know, I’m old enough —

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill McKibben: — that I can remember when we did not own a whole fleet of semi-military vehicles with which to transport our bodies and our stuff. It worked fine. Think about the possibilities presented, say, by the e-bike. There’s an elegant piece of technology. It flattens out the hills so you needn’t be an athlete to ride a bike.

You don’t even have to get sweaty on the way to work. And it uses very little in the way of materials. And the city that embraces it, as, say, Paris is trying to do right now, ends up an infinitely nicer place than the one that’s still clogged with cars, say, Eric Adams, New York. So it’s a moment for working incredibly hard to build out the stuff that we have to have, and also a moment for thinking creatively about how to make societies work somewhat different.

And that, in another way, resembles wartime America of the last century. I mean, the only, you know, we built planes and tanks, but we also upended our social structure. Women were suddenly hard at work in factories across America.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill McKibben: Which was something entirely new. In this case, think about things that we could do, like, say, the four-day work week. Juliet Schor at BC has done a big, big pilot project with the hundreds of companies around the world in the last two or three years, to demonstrate that A, your productivity is just as high, B, your employees are much happier, and C, they end up using significantly less carbon.

You know, things like that are possible. But there’s no use pretending that we don’t have to build out renewable energy fast. Because if we don’t, the temperature is going to get so high that, forget about, you know, thinking, sitting around thinking grand thoughts about restructuring society. All we’re going to be doing is pulling people out of forest fires and, you know —

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill McKibben: — trying to somehow block the rising sea.

Chris Hayes: And not to mention, I mean, there’s so much I want to say in response to that, but just on the last point, the geopolitical implications of the level of refugees and, I mean, we are seeing now, it is a routine thing for boatloads of migrants to drown in the Mediterranean Sea as a matter of course, as people flee to try to get to Europe.

We have saw blades installed between orange buoys deployed in the Rio Grande by the governor of Texas, there to slice up the desperate people who are fleeing to the U.S. across the Rio Grande. That is right now where the push factors of migration are being a whole bunch of things, including climate. We should be clear. Climate is one of the things driving it.

Bill McKibben: We now think, the UNHCR now thinks that climate and natural disaster caused by climate dramatically outpaces the war as a —

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Bill McKibben: — reason for migration.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, and that’s now and that’s nothing. And what country’s politics, internal politics will look like and the stresses it will put on them.

Bill McKibben: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: And the sucker aid and ballast it will give to the worst kind of right-wing impulses.

Bill McKibben: Yes. We’ll think about it for a minute. I mean, a million people came out of Syria to Western Europe after the civil war, itself, by the way, largely triggered by climate change. They had the deepest drought in the history of what we used to call the Fertile Crescent and it moved hundreds of thousands of people off farms into Syrian cities that couldn’t deal with it.

That million people coming into Western Europe was enough to turn the politics of that continent upside down. You know, we’re now electing, you know, Mussolini fans to run Italy. And, you know —

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill McKibben: — a million or two people on our Southern border was probably the single biggest reason that we ended up with Donald Trump ransacking American democracy. The U.N. estimates that if we let climate go at a kind of business as usual pace, it’ll produce between 1 billion and 3 billion refugees before the century is out. So multiply what we’ve seen so far —

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill McKibben: — by a thousand and then try to figure out what it does to our politics. On top of that, remember that most of the people fleeing climate disaster did nothing to cause it. You know, if you’re from Guatemala coming into Texas, you know, your carbon emissions are one-20th what a Texan’s carbon emissions are. And I mean, the iron law of climate change is the less you did to cause it, the sooner and the harder you get hit.

So, at some point, it’s just going to overwhelm our political systems, our moral systems, our everything systems. And that’s just one manifestation of this crisis.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill McKibben: We can talk about food supply. We can talk about a dozen other things that are, you know, equally enormous. I mean, in the most basic terms, we are shrinking the board on which the human game is played. It’s considerably smaller now than it was when you or I were bore (ph), and it’s gonna get much smaller still.

There are vast swaths of the world that are already getting too hot for people to reliably be able to live in. And there are most of the world’s major cities perched on the edge of oceans which have begun to rise pretty dramatically.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill McKibben: So, the job one, job two, job three for human civilization is to arrest the rise in temperature as soon as possible. And the only way to do that is to turn off fossil fuel. And in the world in which we live, in which people are going to continue to demand heat and air conditioning and mobility, I think the only way in the short run to do that is to build out this clean energy system.

Now, as I say, we’d be wise to build out that clean energy system in ways that were way less resource-intensive. But given the choice, we have to build it out. I mean, that’s the imperative here. And we’re in the emergency room. We’re not in the cosmetic surgeon’s office.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill McKibben: We’re in the emergency room and the patient is running in unbelievable fever.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill McKibben: You know, we should be freaking out.

Chris Hayes: So I want to just take a second to go back to the growth debates to resituate them —

Bill McKibben: Yes.

Chris Hayes: — because I also want to sort of give the growth side of them. I would sort of consider my politics, you know, a kind of pro-growth labor liberal, pro-growth social Democrat, you know, just to briefly make the case for growth, right? There’s basically zero economic growth among human societies from essentially Rome to the 1700 or 1800s.

You know, people died at 35. The vast majority of people are peasants living in pretty rough circumstances. There’s the burst of growth that comes with the combination of sort of industrial innovation at a technical level, the discovery of fossil fuel and the mass deployment thereof, and the creation of capitalism as a system, right? These come together.

Bill McKibben: Yeah. And they’re very closely linked.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Bill McKibben: The way to think about it is that the adzed of fossil fuel upended everything because it gave everybody the equivalent of a hundred or a thousand servants that they didn’t have before.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill McKibben: There’s hundreds of thousands of, or tens of thousands of man hours of labor in a barrel of oil. So it was completely seductive and it produced, I think on balance, all kinds of good for a long time. Growth is like that.

But, you know, I’m a father. If my daughter at age 12 had stopped growing, I would have taken her to the pediatrician and said —

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill McKibben: — something’s wrong. But if my daughter at age 30, as she is now, was growing eight inches every year, I’d take her to the doctor, too and say, this does not seem right somehow. So, you know, because something was good for a while, doesn’t mean that it’s good forever.

Our problem, I think deeply is that we’ve grown the world so unequally that there are now —

Chris Hayes: Well, that’s, yes.

Bill McKibben: — large parts of the world that are probably overdeveloped and large parts that are severely underdeveloped. And so part of the trick is figuring out how to —

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill McKibben: — balance some of that going forward.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, I mean, one of the things, points I want to make is that, you’re right, depending on where you are in this growth curve, right, I think there is a diminishing returns to it.

I mean, one of the things, like, you know, growth in a country like Nigeria, which is also happening both very rapidly and at tremendous ecological costs and also in incredibly unequal fashion, right, but if you look at a place like China in which, you know, hundreds of millions of people brought out of poverty, like there are huge welfare gains to human life and human flourishing, and the things that personally I value as, again, a kind of secular liberal, to that kind of growth, you know.

Bill McKibben: Absolutely.

Chris Hayes: People liberated from the grinding toil of the fields like —

Bill McKibben: Yes. And the good news is we can lock in most. I mean, we don’t have to worry about people dying at 35 because we learned about sanitation.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill McKibben: And we learned about antibiotics. And we learned about vaccinations, though we’re now forgetting about them.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Bill McKibben: As long as we keep our minds together, we should be okay. And we have this substitute to provide a lot of energy. One way to think about it is, you know, for 700,000 years, human beings have been happily burning things on this planet. Darwin said that fire and language were the two things that set us apart. And it was all good.

You know, we learned to cook food, so we got the big brain. We could move north and south away from the equator. The anthropologists think that gathering around the campfire for a few eons was enough to kind of build the social bonds in a sort of protozoon, you know?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill McKibben: And then we got to the industrial revolution. And burning, controlling the combustion of coal and gas and oil brought us modernity. But now, we’re at the point where that math has flipped. So there’s not only the climate crisis, which is utterly existential.

If we don’t solve it, then every other question around us is essentially moot. There’s also the fact that we don’t pay enough attention to that 9 million people a year on this planet die. That’s one death in five on our earth from breathing the combustion byproducts of fossil fuel.

Chris Hayes: Yes.